Ethnobotany: Cattails

“If you ever eat cattails, be sure to cook them well, otherwise the fibers are tough and they take more chewing to get the starchy food from them than they are worth. However, they taste like potatoes after you have been eating them for a couple weeks, and to my way of thinking are extremely good.”  – Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

franz

Illustration by Franz Anthony (www.franzanth.com)

Ask anyone to list plants commonly found in American wetlands, and you can guarantee that cattails will make the list nearly every time. Cattails are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They are so successful, that it is hard to picture a wetland without them. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses this well known association:

Cattails grow in nearly all types of wetlands, wherever there is adequate sun, plentiful nutrients, and soggy ground. Midway between land and water, freshwater marshes are among the most highly productive ecosystems on earth, rivaling the tropical rainforest. People valued the supermarket of the swamp for the cattails, but also as a rich source of fish and game. Fish spawn in the shallows; frogs and salamanders abound. Waterfowl nest here in the safety of the dense sward, and migratory birds seek out cattail marshes for sanctuary on their journeys.

The two most abundant species of cattails in North America are Typha latifolia (common cattail) and Typha angustifolia (narrow leaf cattail). T. angustifolia may have been introduced from Europe. The two species also hybridize to form Typha x glauca. There are about 30 species in the genus Typha, and they share the family Typhaceae with just one other genus. The common names for cattail are nearly as abundant as the plant itself: candlewick, water sausage, corn dog plant, cossack asparagus, reedmace, nailrod, cumbungi, etc., etc.

Cattails have long, upright, blade-like leaves. As they approach the base of the plant, the leaves wrap around each other to form a tight bundle with no apparent stem. As Kimmerer puts it, this arrangement enables the plants to “withstand wind and wave action” because “the collective is strong.” Flowers appear on a tall stalk that reaches up towards the tops of the leaves. The inflorescence is composed of hundreds of separate male and female flowers. Male flowers are produced at the top of the stalk and female flowers are found directly below them. In the spring, the male flowers dump pollen down onto the female flowers, and wind carries excess pollen to nearby plants, producing what looks like yellow smoke.

After pollination, the male flowers fade away, leaving the female flowers to mature into a seed head. Just like the flowers, the seeds are small and held tightly together, maintaining the familiar sausage shape. Each seed has a tuft of “hair” attached to it to aid in wind dispersal. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman writes about the abundant seeds (“an estimated average of 220,000 seeds per spike”) of cattail: “A quick experiment, one that Thoreau delighted to perform, demonstrates how tightly the dry seeds are packed in the spike – pull out a small tuft and watch it immediately expand to fill your hand with a downy mass.”

cattails bunch

cattail fluff

Because cattails spread so readily via rhizomes, prolific airborne seeds mostly serve to colonize new sites, away from the thick mass of already established cattails. The ability to dominate vast expanses of shoreline gives cattails an invasive quality that often results in attempts at removal. Various human activities may be aiding their success. Regardless, they provide food and habitat to numerous species of insects, spiders, birds, and mammals. A cattail marsh may not be diverse plant-wise, but it is teeming with all sorts of other life.

Ethnobotanically speaking, it is hard to find many other species that have as many human uses as cattails. For starters, nearly every part of the plant is edible at some point during the year. The rhizomes can be consumed year-round but are best from fall to early spring. They can be roasted, boiled, grated, ground, or dried and milled into flour. Starch collected from pounding and boiling the rhizomes can be used as a thickener. In the spring, young shoots emerging from the rhizomes and the tender core of the leaf bundles can be eaten raw or cooked and taste similar to cucumber. Young flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob and taste similar to artichoke. Pollen, which is high in protein, can be mixed with flour and used to make pancakes and baked goods, among other things. The seeds can be ground into flour or pressed to produce cooking oil.

Cattail leaves can be used to make cords, mats, baskets, thatch, and many other things. Kimmerer writes about the excellent wigwam walls and sleeping mats that weaved cattail leaves make:

The cattails have made a suburb material for shelter in leaves that are long, water-repellent, and packed with closed-cell foam for insulation. … In dry weather, the leaves shrink apart from one another and let the breeze waft between them for ventilation. When the rains come, they swell and close the gap, making the [wall] waterproof. Cattails also make fine sleeping mats. The wax keeps away moisture from the ground and the aerenchyma provide cushioning and insulation.

The fluffy seeds make great tinder for starting fires, as well as excellent insulation and pillow and mattress stuffing. The dry flower stalks can be dipped in fat, lit on fire, and used as a torch. Native Americans used crushed rhizomes as a poultice to treat burns, cuts, sores, etc. A clear gel is found between the tightly bound leaves of cattail. Kimmerer writes, “The cattails make the gel as a defense against microbes and to keep the leaf bases moist when water levels drop.” The gel can be used like aloe vera gel to soothe sunburned skin.

Eastman rattles off a number of commercial uses for cattail: “Flour and cornstarch from rhizomes, ethyl alcohol from the fermented flour, burlap and caulking from rhizome fibers, adhesive from the stems, insulation from the downy spikes, oil from the seeds, rayon from cattail pulp, …” To conclude his section on cattails he writes, “With cattails present, one need not starve, freeze, remain untreated for injury, or want for playthings.”

Additional Resources:

Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot, part two

Earlier this year, as part of the ethnobotany series, I wrote about plantains (Plantago spp.), of which at least one species is commonly referred to as white man’s foot (or some version of that). Since writing that post, I happened upon a couple of other sources that had interesting and informative things to say about plantains. Rather than go back and update the original post, I decided to make a part two. Hopefully, you find this as interesting as I do. If nothing else, the sources themselves are worth checking out for the additional, fascinating information they contain about all sorts of plants.

plantago_boise capitol building

From The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Concerning their cosmopolitan nature: “Although both plantains [P. major and P. lanceolata] are Eurasian natives, they have long been thoroughly naturalized global residents; the designation ‘alien’ applies to them in the same sense that all white and black Americans are alien residents.”

In which I learned a new term: “Both species are anthropophilic (associate with humans); they frequent roadsides, parking areas, driveways, and vacant lots, occurring almost everywhere in disturbed ground. Where one species grows, the other can often be found nearby.”

Medicinal and culinary uses according to Eastman: “Plantains have versatile curative as well as culinary properties; nobody need go hungry or untreated for sores where plantains grow. These plants contain an abundance of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, and ascorbic acid. Cure-all claims for common plantain’s beneficial medical uses include a leaf tea for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, lung and stomach disorders, and the root tea as a mouthwash for toothache. … Their most frequent and demonstrably effective use as a modern herb remedy, however, is as a leaf poultice for insect bites and stings plus other skin irritations. The leaf’s antimicrobial properties reduce inflammation, and its astringent chemistry relieves itching, swelling, and soreness.”

Even the seeds are “therapeutic”: “The gelatinous mucilage surrounding seeds can be readily separated, has been used as a substitute for linseed oil. Its widest usage is in laxative products for providing bulk and soluble fiber called psyllium, mainly derived from the plantain species P. ovata and leafy-stemmed plantain (P. psyllium), both Mediterranean natives.”

Plantain’s “cure-all reputation continues” today: Claims range from a homeopathic cancer remedy to a stop-smoking aid, “supposedly causing tobacco aversion.”

Claims of the healing properties of plantains abound in literature: “John the Baptist, in the lore of the saints, used it as a healing herb; Anglo Saxon gardeners called it the ‘mother of herbs.’ Plantain is ‘in the command of Venus and cures the head by antipathy to Mars,’ according to 17th century English herbalist-astrologist Nicholas Culpeper. Plantains also bear frequent mention in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare.”

The worst thing plantains have to offer according to Eastman: “the airborne pollen they shed in large amounts, contributing to many hay fever allergies.”

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

Illustration by Amelia Hansen from The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

From Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants by Richard Mabey

Mabey’s too-good-to-paraphrase overview of plantain: “Plantain, ‘the mother or worts,’ is present in almost all the early prescriptions of magical herbs, back as far as the earliest Celtic fire ceremonies. It isn’t clear why such a drab plant – a plain rosette of grey-green leaves topped by a flower spike like a rat’s-tail – should have had pre-eminent status. But its weediness, in the sense of its willingness to tolerate human company, may have had a lot to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon names ‘Waybroad’ or ‘Waybread’ simply mean ‘a broad-leaved herb which grows by the wayside.’ This is plantain’s defining habit and habitat. It thrives on roadways, field-paths, church steps. In the most literal sense it dogs human footsteps. Its tough, elastic leaves, growing flush with the ground, are resilient to treading. You can walk on them, scuff them, even drive over them, and they go on living. They seem to actively prosper from stamping, as more delicate plants around them are crushed. The principles of sympathetic magic, therefore, indicated that plantain would be effective for crushing and tearing injuries. (And so it is, to a certain extent. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannins, which help to close wounds and halt bleeding.)”

On the inclusion of plantains in Midsummer’s Eve rituals: “On Midsummer’s Eve, great bonfires were lit in the countryside, and bundles of wild herbs thrown on them. Most of the plants were agricultural weeds, including St. John’s-wort, corn marigold, corn poppy, mayweed, mugwort, ragwort, plantain, and vervain.”

More about Midsummer’s Eve and the “future-foretelling powers” of this “divination herb, stretching sight into the future”: “On Midsummer’s Eve in Berwickshire, the flowering stems were employed by young women in a charm which would predict whether they would fall in love. It was a delicate, almost erotic process in which the sexual organs of the plantain were used as symbolic indicators. Two of the ‘rat’s-tail’ flowering spikes were picked, and any visible purple anthers removed. The two spikes were wrapped in a dock leaf and placed under a stone. If, by the next day, more anthers had risen erect from the flowering spikes, loves was imminent.”

"Greater - or 'ratstail' - plantain had by this time been nicknamed 'Englishman's foot' by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man's wake." - Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unwanted Plants

“Greater – or ‘ratstail’ – plantain had by this time been nicknamed ‘Englishman’s foot’ by the Native Americans, who had witnessed its prodigious advance in the white man’s wake.” – Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unwanted Plants

A friendly reminder: If you like what you see here, please share it with your friends and family by whatever means you prefer. Questions, comments, and feedback are always welcome. Comment below or contact me directly via the Contact page. Follow Awkward Botany on tumblr and twitter. After you’ve done all that, step away from the screen, go outside, and explore.

Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot, part one

“Plantains – Plantago major – seem to have arrived with the very first white settlers and were such a reliable sign of their presence that the Native Americans referred to them as ‘white men’s footsteps.'” – Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction)

“Our people have a name for this round-leafed plant: White Man’s Footstep. Just a low circle of leaves, pressed close to the ground with no stem to speak of, it arrived with the first settlers and followed them everywhere they went. It trotted along paths through the woods, along wagon roads and railroads, like a faithful dog so as to be near them.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass)

photo credits: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Plantago major is in the family Plantaginaceae – the plantain family – a family that consists of at least 90 genera, several of which include common species of ornamental plants such as Veronica (speedwells), Digitalis (foxgloves), and Antirrhinum (snapdragons). The genus Plantago consists of around 200 species commonly known as plantains. They are distributed throughout the world in diverse habitats. Most of them are herbaceous perennials with similar growth habits, and many have ethnobotanical uses comparable to P. major.

Originating in Eurasia, P. major now has a cosmopolitan distribution. It has joined humans as they have traveled and migrated from continent to continent and is now considered naturalized throughout most temperate and some tropical regions. In North America, P. major and P. lanceolata are the two most common introduced species in the Plantago genus. P. major has a plethora of common names – common plantain being the one that the USDA prefers. Other names include broadleaf plantain, greater plantain, thickleaf plantain, ribgrass, ribwort, ripplegrass, and waybread. Depending on the source, there are various versions of the name white man’s foot, and along the same line, a common name for P. major in South Africa is cart-track plant.

P. major is a perennial – albeit sometimes annual or biennial – herbaceous plant. Its leaves form a rosette that is usually oriented flat against the ground and reaches up to 30 cm wide. Each leaf is egg-shaped with parallel veins and leaf margins that are sometimes faintly toothed. The inflorescence is a leafless spike up to 20 cm tall (sometimes taller) with several tiny flowers that are a dull yellow-green-brown color. The flowers are wind pollinated, and the plants are highly prone to self-pollination. The fruits are capsules that can contain as many as 30 seeds – an entire plant can produce as many as 14,000 – 15,000 seeds at once. The seeds are small, brown, sticky, and easily transported by wind or by adhering to shoes, clothing, animals, and machinery. They require light to germinate and can remain viable for up to 60 years.

An illustration of three Plantago species found in Selected Weeds of the United States - Agriculture Handbook No. 366 circa 1970

An illustration of three Plantago species found in Selected Weeds of the United States – Agriculture Handbook No. 366 circa 1970

P. major prefers sunny sites but can also thrive in part shade. It adapts to a variety of soil types but performs best in moist, clay-loam soils. It is often found in compacted soils and is very tolerant of trampling. This trait, along with its low-growing leaves that easily evade mower blades, explains why it is so commonly seen in turf grass. It is highly adaptable to a variety of habitats and is particularly common on recently disturbed sites (natural or human caused) and is an abundant urban and agricultural weed.

Even though it is wind pollinated, its flowers are visited by syrphid flies and various bee species which feed on its pollen. Several other insects feed on its foliage, along with a number of mammalian herbivores. Cardinals and other bird species feed on its seeds.

Humans also eat plantain leaves, which contain vitamins A, C, and K. Young, tender leaves can be eaten raw, while older leaves need to be cooked as they become tough and stringy with age. The medicinal properties of  P. major have been known and appreciated at least as far back as the Anglo-Saxons, who likely used a poultice made from the leaves externally to treat wounds, burns, sores, bites, stings, and other irritations. Native Americans, after seeing the plant arrive with European settlers, quickly learned to use the plant as food and medicine. It could be used to stop cuts from bleeding and to treat rattlesnake bites. Apart from external uses, the plant was used internally as a pain killer and to treat ulcers, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues.

P. major has been shown to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other biological properties; several chemical compounds have been isolated from the plant and deemed responsible for these properties. For this reason, P. major and other species of Plantago have been used to treat a number of ailments. The claims are so numerous and diverse that it is worth exploring if you are interested. You can start by visiting the following sites:

"White man's footstep, generous and healing, grows with its leaves so close to the ground that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth." - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (photo credit: www.eol.org)

“White man’s footstep, generous and healing, grows with its leaves so close to the ground that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Other Ethnobotany Posts on Awkward Botany:

The Legacy of a Leaky Dioecy

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

The Ecological Side of an Ethnobotanical Coin: Legacies in Historically Managed Trees by Nanci J. Ross, M. Henry H. Stevens, Andrew W. Rupiper, Ian Harkreader, and Laura A. Leben

As much as we like to think otherwise, pre-Colombian Native Americans altered the natural landscape in drastic and measurable ways. What we often consider an unaltered, pristine natural area before European colonization, actually has human fingerprints all throughout it. Determining just how deep these fingerprints go, however, is a challenge that requires careful and thorough anthropological and ecological studies.

Many such studies have been done, mostly at the community and ecosystem level. For example, Native Americans used fire extensively as a land management tool. This is how prairies were maintained as prairies. Today, forests in eastern North America that were once dominated by oaks have shifted over to maple dominated forests. This is largely (although not solely) because anthropogenic fires have ceased and wildfires are now suppressed. If fires had never been used as a management tool, would oaks (an important Native American food source) have ever maintained such dominance?

Native Americans participated in the domestication of numerous plant species. Much of this was done by way of – as Charles Darwin termed it – unconscious selection. Rather than selecting specific individuals and breeding them to achieve a desired type, they would simply discard undesirable plants and maintain desirable ones. Much of this selection, especially for woody, perennial species was done through land management techniques – such as fire – as opposed to typical cultivation. The authors of this article, interested in whether or not the “legacy” of this method of selection through land management could be observed today in an individual species, developed a preliminary study to begin to answer this question.

Diospyros – a genus in the ebony family (Ebenaceae) consisting of around 500 species – is mainly pantropical with a few species occurring in temperate regions. One temperate species is Diospyros virginiana – common persimmon – which “has a broad distribution throughout the United States from Connecticut south to Florida and west to the eastern edge of Nebraska.” Persimmons were used and managed extensively by Native Americans; however, they are “now viewed as a rare, weedy, wild fruit tree that is known primarily by hobbyists and wild harvesters.”

Fruits of common persimmon, Diospyros virginiana )photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Fruits of common persimmon, Diospyros virginiana (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

D. virginiana is a dioecious species, meaning that it produces male flowers and female flower on separate individuals. Despite this, some individuals have been reported bearing both male and female flowers while others have been seen having perfect flowers along with either male or female flowers. Some trees have even been reported to be dioecious one year and then having perfect flowers and/or some combination of male, female, and perfect flowers the next year. This variation from the norm – what the authors call “leaky dioecy” – can either be a result of artificial selection or environmental pressures. The authors hypothesized that “leaky dioecy in D. virginiana is a result of historical selection by Native Americans for trees with copious fruit production.” This preliminary study was designed to see if climate and soil conditions might be the reason for the observed “sex expression.”

Skipping ahead, the authors found “no compelling evidence…to suggest segregation due to environmental factors,” signaling them to “move forward in [their] investigation of potential long-term impacts of historical management on the evolution of reproductive traits in American persimmon without the noise of a strong environmental driver.” The authors go on to discuss challenges in their study, including the length of time since “extensive management” making it hard to “uncover a signal of precontact management” and the limitations of having to rely on herbarium specimens. Either way, it is a worthy study to pursue. Even if it does not reveal the full story of how Native Americans managed persimmons in pre-colonial times, further insight into “adaptive flexibility in reproductive systems of long-lived perennial species” and other interesting things that persimmons might teach us will be well worth the effort.

Characteristic bark of common persimmon, Diospyros virginiana (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Characteristic bark of common persimmon, Diospyros virginiana (photo credit: www.eol.org)